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Much ado about TV plagiarism

Updated: 2012-08-11 07:47
By Wang Yiqing ( China Daily)

Popular Internet writer Lai Bao denounced the high audience rating TV drama Love Apartment 3 on his weibo or micro blog on Aug 4 for using a number of his original jokes from his books without authorization. As expected, it drew wide public attention.

In less than 24 hours, the TV drama group tendered a public apology on its official weibo for using Lai's original jokes. It said it would like to pay for all of Lai's original pieces it had used in the show. Lai accepted the apology and said what he wants is to be recognized as the author of the contents rather than money. Famous playwright Ning Caishen went a step further and praised the group for "showing respect to network copyright".

Thanks to the quick response and excellent public relations strategy, a hit play's plagiarism scandal was resolved and even turned into a promotion for the show. But the "happy ending" bears a closer analysis.

According to an old Chinese saying, using things that belong to others without permission is stealing; in this case, it is plagiarism. But in the official apology, the producer of Love Apartment 3 didn't directly admit to have committed plagiarism. He only said that he was sorry for "creating trouble for the original authors" and "saluted them".

This seems to convey a strange logic, that using others' works without permission is not plagiarism. A public apology becomes mandatory when somebody harms others' rights and interests. But, to some extent, the TV drama group has been let off leniently. I wonder why it should be praised and why Lai doesn't understand "the 'thief' is being encouraged to 'steal'".

The TV drama group argues that it is hard to define network copyright and it has "real" difficulties in contacting the original authors of the network contents it uses. It sounds like a reasonable explanation. But the fact is that the contents it "uses" in the drama are far more than network jokes.

Right from its first season the TV drama has been criticized by netizens for copying a number of plots, scenes and dialogues from a couple of famous TV dramas. But the dramatist and crew members of Love Apartment 3 have denied doing so in an interview to the media.

The Love Apartment 3 plagiarism dispute is quite typical of and exposes the chaos in the domestic TV drama copyright market. In recent years, some netizens have accused a number of TV dramas of copying scenes from other TV shows. But only a few of them have bought copyrights from the producers of the originals before making their own versions, such as Hunan Satellite TV's Ugly Wudi, which was legally adapted from famous Mexican TV drama Ugly Betty.

China lacks specific regulations to define "plagiarism" in films and TV dramas. Under such circumstances, it is hard to determine whether it's "plagiarism" or "referential use". Even in clear cases of plagiarism, the cost of safeguarding copyright through legal channels is rather high.

Copying popular TV dramas can easily get high audience rating because of their excellent contents. Considering the small fine one has to pay for copyright violation and the huge profits such copycat versions can bring in, it's not surprising that the producers of most of the "clones" don't buy the copyright. Besides, distorted media promotion has also polluted the environment of the TV drama industry. Instead of being ashamed of plagiarizing, some producers even take advantage of the scandal to draw audience attention and hype their upcoming programs.

I remember what our journalism mentor once said: "Mediocre is mediocre, but plagiarism is a sin." Learning from the experiences of other films and TV dramas is somewhat unavoidable. But we can at least safeguard the bottom line when it comes to plagiarism.

Moreover, netizens' supervision and criticism cannot resolve all the plagiarism disputes. It is the authorities' responsibility to protect copyright owners' legal rights. The government has to improve the laws and regulations on copyright to rid films and TV dramas of plagiarism.

The author is a journalist with China Daily. E-mail: wangyiqing@chinadaily.com.cn

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